Friday, December 17, 2010

Lies, Damn Lies, & Statistics

I heard that somewhere, not sure where though.

This came to mind as I read today two very different presentations of statistics. First, from Dan Gardner, a columnist I often enjoy to read in the Ottawa Citizen. "Cheer Up", he tells us! "Things aren't nearly as bad as they seem." He then quotes recently published statistics from the United Nations Human Development Report 2010.

"Most people today are healthier, live longer, are more educated and have more access to goods and services. Even in countries facing adverse economic conditions, people's health and education have greatly improved. And there has been progress not only in improving health and education and raising income, but also in expanding people's power to select leaders, influence public decisions, and share knowledge."

He informs us that the report's findings tell us that:

-. All but three of the 135 countries have a higher level of human development today than in 1970.

-. A baby born today in almost any country can expect to live longer than at any time in history.

-. If children were still dying at the higher rates prevalent in the late 1970s, 6.7 million more children would die each year.

-. People around the world have much higher levels of education than ever before. ... No country has seen declines in literacy or years of schooling since 1970.

-. Since 1970, 155 countries -- home to 95 per cent of the world's people -- have experienced increases in real per capita income. The annual average today is $10,760, almost 1.5 times its level 20 years ago and twice its level 40 years ago. These increases are evident "in all regions."

-. Between 1970 and 2010, China's per capita income rose 21-fold, Botswana's more than nine-fold and Malaysia's and Thailand's more than five-fold.

-. The share of formal democracies has increased from fewer than a third of countries in 1970 to half in the mid-1990s and to three-fifths in 2008.

-. Overall, poor countries are catching up with rich countries in the HDI.

And then, later in the day, I pick up from the library the book The Bridge at the End of the World, by James Gustave Speth, where I read the following on the first couple of pages:

Half the world's tropical and temperate forests are now gone. The rate of deforestation in the tropics continues at about an acre a second. About half the wetlands and a third of the mangroves are gone. An estimated 90 percent of the large predator fish are gone, and 75 percent of marine fisheries are now overfished or fished to capacity. Twenty percent of the corals are gone, and another 20 percent severely threatened. Species are disappearing at rates about a thousand times fasther than normal. The planet has not seen such a spasm of extinction in sixty-five million years, since the dinosaurs disappeared. Over half the agricultural land in drier regions suffers from some degree of deterioration and desertification. Persistent toxic chemicals can be found by the dozens in essentially each and every one of us.

Human impacts are now large relative to natural systems. The earth's stratospheric ozone layer was severely depleted before the change was discovered. Human activities have pushed atmospheric carbon dioxide up by more than a third and have started in earnest the dangerous process of warming the planet and disrupting climate. Everywhere earth's ice fields are melting. Industrial process are fixing nitrogen, making it biologically active, at a rate equal to nature's; one result is the development of more than two hundred dead zones in the oceans due to overfertilization. Human actions already consume or destroy each year about 40 percent of nature's photosynthetic output, leaving too little for other species. Freshwater withdrawals doubled globally between 1960 and 2000, and are now over half of accessible runoff. The following rivers no longer reach the oceans in the dry season: the Colorado, yellow, Ganges and Nile, among others.

No wonder so many of us are confused. But then...maybe it isn't so confusing after all. Maybe the reason the United Nations can report such a variety of improvement in human development indices is a direct result of humankind's gorging itself on the environmental riches of the planet, as described by Speth. Oh, some of us may be better off, for now. But, can it last?

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